April 19, 2014

Bob Harris’ Malibu Ceramic Works

 

PHOTO COURTESY OF PATRICIA COLVIG

Bob Harris’ Malibu Ceramic Works

The stove in Patricia Colvig’s kitchen stands as testimony to the skill and artistry of Harris and the Malibu Ceramic Works production team.

Bob Harris, owner of Malibu Ceramic Works Inc., likes to do what he likes to do.

Nowadays, that is keeping the lost art of handmade California tile of the early 20th century and its cultural richness alive and prospering.

In 1979, Harris worked in the film industry and knew nothing about tile. But when a friend moved out of Topanga, Harris bought his collection of Malibu Tile that was produced by Malibu Potteries from 1926-1932.

“I liked them and would give them away as Christmas presents,” says Harris.

Little did he know that 30 years later, he would be regarded as the founding father of Malibu Tile and other decorative art tiles of the early 20th century because he was able to recreate the formulas that had been lost to history.

PHOTO COURTESY OF PATRICIA COLVIG

Bob Harris’ Malibu Ceramic Works

The sink in Patricia Colvig's house shows the same mastery and attention to detail that is the mark of the workmanship of Malibu Tile Works.

The most comprehensive collection of Malibu Potteries, that once boasted more than 100 artists and craftsmen, can be found at the historical Adamson House in Malibu, once the home of Rhoda Rindge, of the famed Rindge Ranch, and her husband Frederick Adamson.

When the depression hit in 1929, the public’s interest in decorative art tile was waning. In 1932, Malibu Potteries burned down and went out of business, as did other companies.

In 1979, Harris thought it would be “interesting” to remake the tiles and called upon his friend, Topanga ceramist Jim Sullivan, whose tile art you walk on when you cross the threshold of the Topanga Library.

Together they started Malibu Ceramic Works in Harris’ garage. They started testing colors and making tiles and eventually created an entire production model, as well as the business model.

“It took two years,” Harris says. “There were no books, no internet. We had to figure it all out ourselves: the technology, the formulas and techniques to make glazes and restore the lost art of making Malibu tile. I financed it because I was still working in the film business.”

Little by little, they created a business.

“In the ‘70s, when there wasn’t much interest in decorative arts, we started restoring the use of brilliant colors at a time when the preferred colors were earth tones,” says Harris. “We learned that low-temperature firing is the method to get the brilliant reds and yellows and restored that tradition.”

PHOTO COURTESY OF BOB HARRIS

Bob Harris’ Malibu Ceramic Works

A worker in the factory applies glaze to the tiles at Malibu Tile Works.

They went through years of struggle, moving from the garage to a pottery studio behind the Legion Hall (now Froggy’s Fish Market). When it burned down in 1991, they moved to the Turnout (the Flying Pig) until 1992 when the mudslide took out the building, then back to Harris’ home when he took over and ran the business himself.

In 2002, he bought the property that had been Pamela Ingram’s Sassafrass Nursery—she died in 2000 and there was a family tussle over the inheritance. He set up shop with his son, Matthew, who runs the day-to-day operations, and expanded the business to do other tile designs of that era.

“Other companies can’t do production like we can. I’m very efficient in making it, developing new systems that other ceramic people don’t use. A lot of other companies have a lot of seconds. We don’t have seconds; we have overruns.

“We’re a full-service business and do all the things that Malibu Potteries did. They were a big company. We try to emulate what they did. They had good designs. We also do a lot of restoration on old buildings; people will ask us to match old tile. We’ve done big jobs and small.

One of the small jobs they did was for Patricia Colvig, who wanted to redo her kitchen in Malibu tile.

“I agreed to that job and tried to help Patty in every way because she loved the tiles so much and appreciates it. The tile is reasonable for what it takes to make it, but it was expensive for her.”

Colvig was more than happy with the job and her kitchen stands as testimony to the skill and artistry of Harris and the Malibu Ceramic Works production team.

“This has been a visionary project,” says Harris. “It takes something like that to do what no one has done for years. I’m good at that. I like to work as a team and like to delegate. If you work together everything gets better. I can figure things out and am good with color. It’s a talent I never knew I had.”

When he worked in films, he and his team were never out of work and even won an Oscar for Bird.

“The producers who hired us appreciated us,” he says. “They can pick whomever they want and they picked us. I like to do what I like to do. You do your job and you get more work.”

Malibu Ceramic Works has established itself as a local art treasure. Many of the Art Tile projects designed and manufactured by Malibu Ceramic Works adorn prominent commercial and residential structures such as: The Battistone Villa in Santa Barbara, the Four Seasons Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara and most recently, Malibu’s Legacy Park and the restored Malibu Lagoon. For more information: Malibu.ceramics@verizon.net; (310) 455-2485; malibuceramicworks.com; 275 N Topanga Canyon Blvd, Topanga, CA, by appointment only.